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New Supercomputer to Help Reveal Cosmic Mysteries

In the foreground, left, is Nicholas Samios, director of the RIKEN BNL Research Center, and right, facing camera is Nobel Laureate Tsung-Dao Lee, University Professor of Physics, during the QCDOC supercomputer unveiling at Brookhaven National Laboratory this spring.

Call it the "Big Bang in a Box." Columbia University physicists have a new tool to study the earliest moments of our universe.

A new supercomputer at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) is capable of determining the properties of a state of matter that may hold the key to the Big Bang.

The supercomputer, which resembles a row of tall bookcases, can perform 10 trillion calculations per second in an effort to study the environment thought to have existed during the first moments after the Big Bang.

Columbia researchers working at the laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), have already succeeded in creating a form of hot dense matter whose properties are consistent with the so-called quark-gluon plasma -- the elusive primordial matter scientists have sought to understand for years.

Working in tandem with the RHIC, the supercomputer, dubbed QCDOC, is expected to play a key part in reducing the list of cosmic mysteries. Powerful telescopes, intricate laboratory probes, and cutting-edge computer and mathematical analyses are being utilized to turn abstract concepts into subjects that can be precisely studied within the relatively small confines of a computer.

QCDOC is ultra-fast, harnessing the power of 12,288 individual computers. Each processor is constructed on a single silicon chip, so QCDOC is essentially 12,288 interconnected chips. A smaller supercomputer, about the size of two large book cases and housed in Columbia's Pupin Hall, came online in the spring and will carry out similar calculations.

The $5 million BNL computer, part of the RIKEN (The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research of Japan)/BNL Research Center, took five years to design and build, and will allow environmental conditions surrounding the collision of heavy ions to be maintained as a computer model -- something currently impossible at the collider itself -- explained Norman Christ, Ephraim Gildor Professor of Computational Theoretical Physics at Columbia.

Together with Associate Professor of Physics Robert Mawhinney and others, Christ is leading Columbia's involvement in the project. The computer was designed and built by Columbia University, Brookhaven Lab, IBM, RIKEN and the University of Edinburgh.

"It's an enormous breakthrough for Columbia and the field of theoretical physics," Mawhinney said. New data from computer modeling could be used to predict what is happening when high temperatures, which quickly dissipate in the collider itself, are kept constant, as was likely the case following the Big Bang.

Related to this effort, QCDOC will be used for calculations in quantum chromodynamics -- the physics theory that describes the interactions of subatomic quarks and gluons. In particular, physicists hope to understand the reason for the existence of six types of quarks -- subatomic particles thought to be elemental and indivisible, and of intense interest in the field of particle physics. The purpose of high-energy particle physics, as opposed to high-energy nuclear physics, is to understand the properties and states of these basic building blocks of matter.

"There's a wonderful synergy between the calculations and the experiments being performed at RHIC," said Physics Professor William Zajc, "which makes Brookhaven the world's leader in this exciting field."

 

Published: Jul 19, 2005
Last modified: Jul 18, 2005

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